Archive for October, 1998
It’s been the placards that have haunted me these last few days—even more than the awful image of a young man beaten, his skull smashed in, tied to a fence post, mistaken for a scarecrow—the placards at the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Placards carried by a bunch of demonstrators from a local church. “God hates fags.” Another, “Matthew was wicked.”
That’s one way to respond to evil and violence and hatred: join in—better yet—get God to join in too. Hold up your proud heads and your eloquent hands and get one last blow in before the body is taken from you. One of those holy protesters spoke up to the press, “I’m here to spread some truth in this orgy of lies.” The same kind of truth, the same true kindness, offered in recent Christian TV shows and newspaper ads. “God hates fags, so let us cure you of your wickedness and remake you in our own image.”
How do you deal with that? How do you respond? At the funeral the mourners stood in front of the placards and blocked the view with umbrellas and drowned the slogans with “Amazing Grace.” A dignified and graceful response to hate—but really only a makeshift, masking the reality rather than dealing with it.
The reality was inside: a young man, quiet, gentle by all accounts, and dead before his time. How do you make sense of that? Every one was trying to make sense of it. Maybe, they said, maybe Matthew’s death will bring some good, melt some hearts, allow some change. The young guy who found Matthew wondered why he found him alive if all he did was die anyway. Others were just saying it’s God’s will, echoing unthinkingly the placards outside. And one of the eulogies made the connection between the body trussed to the wooden post and the ancient body of Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross. But it’s too easy to invoke the figure on the cross, too easy to defuse the anger and the hurt and the betrayal, too easy to let God off the hook. Because who’s to say the placards aren’t right? And if they’re not then why did God let this happen? Or any of the other things that routinely shake our faith: the senseless deaths, the untimely illnesses, the erasure of beauty, the pointless cruelties. Maybe there’s no sense to be made of it all. Maybe all we can do is complain that it should not be so. So choose your own complaint but do complain. Because it’s too easy to let God off the hook, too easy because when we do we let ourselves off the hook too. When we excuse God’s bad behaviour we excuse our own. When we justify God’s indifference or tardiness or neglect we justify our own indifference, tardiness and neglect. But why do we try and protect God this way? Isn’t God big enough to hear our complaints? Can’t God bear the burden of reality? Or are we just afraid of making God angry and finding ourselves on the receiving end?
“When the Son of man comes will he find any faith on the earth?” That’s what St. Luke wonders. Or will we have stopped complaining, stopped caring? The parable of the widow isn’t about nagging God until you get what you want. It isn’t even about nagging God until you get what you need. It is about nagging each other and letting ourselves be nagged by what should not be. Not being silent. Not forgetting. Not tolerating evil meekly. Not letting anyone off the hook.
Because that’s what the gospel says: whatever it may look like, however much it may seem impossible, God is on the side of Matthew Shepard. Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. and the mown down dead of Northern Ireland and Bosnia. On the side of battered women, hungry children, desperate migrants, homeless beggars, the ruined earth. And let me tell you, God is pissed! God is not happy! God’s list of complaints is mighty long.
So when the placards go up and the voices of hate are raised what do we have to lift up in response? Something more than masking umbrellas? When the bodies are tied to the fence posts, or beaten in back alleys, or crushed into closets—where are we? Are we going to raise the roof in protest? Or will we stay silent? Because if we fail to complain we fail our faith and we miss another chance to know God. Because if we are not in God’s face about this then God will be in ours. And God loves fags.
October 18th, 1998
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has been with us since the beginning.
I remember, six years ago, dreading the thought of leaving England to come here to America. I remember looking to the west and seeing only darkness, thinking, “There’s no one there I know, not a person within 10,000 miles.” And though that was quite true, I was surprised from the beginning of being here how much it felt like home, more like home than home did. But you know what surprised more than anything was that God was already here when I arrived. And not just floating around vaguely but solidly in one specific place. I would be walking around the Campus in Berkeley just marvelling at being here and I would feel this warm breeze that would get my attention and it would feel like nothing so much as being breathed upon. Breathed upon by God. God was breathing on me out of these green bushes, round the corners of paths, crossing over bridges. I’d feel this warm breath and I’d stop and feel blessed. I’d feel welcomed. And I’d feel in the right place. And it has been the right place.
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has loved us since the beginning. Two years ago I took a couple of friends around some of the holy places of my country. One was Rievaulx, a beautiful ruined Cistercian Abbey, built in the twelfth century and demolished in the sixteenth. It’s quiet there and green and the stones, in the sun, glow golden. One of my friends sat down in the shade on one of those stones … and sat and sat … He said it was as if the stone had roots that went down to the middle of the earth and he could feel the slow ages of prayer that it had overheard. A peace grew up from the earth and drew him deep down to his own roots, to a place where he could tell truth from lies, and doubt from desire. A place with no plastic—only stone and a faithful God he could trust.
My other friend wandered around absorbed in his thoughts until his daydreams seemed to come alive wondering about the monks who had once been in this place. He found himself imagining talking to one of them about what his life was like and found his own yearning for companionship answered in him. That imagined monk goes with him still, whispering God’s trust in him.
Myself I met Aelred, 8 centuries ago the abbot of the place, and I left a part of me there in his care, for his healing. On holy ground.
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has been beside us from the beginning. But when we meet him we never want to let him go. Like Naaman in the bible we want to take home a whole pile of dirt so we have our own holy ground to pray on. My two friends took home souvenirs: posters, books, but above all stone and earth—the physical substance of the place. And they took home a real experience of God.
Do you know what I mean? Has that ever happened to you? Has God ever surprised you by turning up unexpectedly? I believe we all have some story to tell. And so often our stories involve being in a strange place, of being foreigners in a foreign land, because so often we get so used to where we live that we don’t see its strangeness and so used to God’s presence that we no longer notice. But when we are away from home maybe God gets a chance to sneak up on us unawares.
If we’ve gotten this far, if we have our own stories to tell of unexpected, holy places, we’ve gotten about as far as those ten lepers cured by Jesus. All ten are deeply blessed. Presumably they all jumped for joy at what happened. Probably they all told the story for the rest of their lives. But what marks out the one guy who came back to Jesus is just that—he came back to the place where it all happened and he didn’t let it the story be finished. He wanted the story to continue.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that he was a foreigner—even among outcasts—but by going back he ceased to be a stranger. He saw Jesus face to face. He stopped being part of a crowd and became a person. But Jesus too stopped being a name he’d heard about and became a person. Someone with a face and a voice and a smell.
That’s our invitation always. To meet the God who is always with us wherever he turns up. And to keep on coming back to that place until we know his face and know his voice and know his smell.
October 11th, 1998
The word I hear echoing around and around these readings today is “faith“. And the way that faith is talked, it sounds like a fragile thing, a thing in short-supply, or at least something you have to work hard to keep. Faith is like the ashes of a fire that have to be stirred into flame. Like a rich treasure that has to be guarded. Like a message that has to be written in big, careful letters so you can’t miss it. Or like a tiny seed that has to be planted and grown.
But what is it? What is this faith we are talking about? Well here’s the gospel image of faith—faith is like standing in front of a towering sycamore tree and wondering how on earth you’re going to uproot it and throw it a dozen miles into the sea. Imagine it. Not with tools and trucks, not even with bare hands and elbow grease, but with a word. This is the fundamental experience of faith; this is where faith grows—or doesn’t. Faced with that sycamore tree, searching for that word of unknown power, we either experience faith or we experience despair—because the only difference between them is in what you do. And it’s a tiny difference because what you need do is tiny. What makes all the difference is that despair does nothing but faith plants a tiny seed in the hope—just the hope—that it will make a difference. Faith is planting an insignificant seed in the suffocating shadow of a sycamore.
We get a glimpse of that seed planted in the words of Habakkuk the prophet. There the prophet stands overshadowed by the sycamore tree but he doesn’t hold back—he’s going to make so much noise that the tree will fall. He sees the violence in his society—the ruin, the misery, and the destruction—and while the politicians are looking outside Israel for enemies and among themselves for scandals he sees the enemy on his own doorstep: the violence inflicted by his own friends, by his own community. Violence enshrined in his own legal system, condoned by his own religious leaders, sanctioned by his own government. Habakkuk sees the violence that no one else will name and he names it. He names it, stands before it, lets it tower above him, and he refuses to despair, refuses to be silent. He calls on God, shouts at God, berates God until he gets an answer. “Why do you let me see ruin, why must I look at misery, why don’t you do something?” Isn’t that our question so often? Wouldn’t we yell it out loud at God if we had a little more courage? If we had Habakkuk’s faith? “God why do you tolerate this? Don’t you care? Do something!” Well, eventually God does something: God answers. And the answer is “Habakkuk, you do something!”
That’s our model of faith. Faith isn’t a thing you have, but a thing you do. And that’s why you have to stir the ashes into flame, that’s why you have to write the message in big letters, that’s why you have to take a tiny seed and plant it in dirt and hope it will grow.
Faith is what happens when you experience the immovable violence and injustice all around you—and within you too—and still do the one thing necessary, however insignificant it may seem. Faith is sitting down on the bus because your feet are tired. Faith is bringing your dream of justice down from the mountain top into the home of violence. Faith is knowing the gap between the way things are and the way God means things to be, and feeling the gap like fire in your bones—feeling the ache like God feels the ache. Faith is letting yourself feel as helpless as God feels and yet doing the impossible because not to do it would be betrayal.
But truth is, I hate this. I’m frightened by faith. I’m not sure I can hold fast to the one noble thing. Even if it’s a tiny thing no bigger than a mustard seed. … Which is why I’m glad I’m not alone this morning. Thank God we are not alone in our faith. Thank God that faith is not mine, that faith is not yours, but that faith is ours—because if it’s not it’s nobody’s. Thank God we don’t face the sycamore alone.
October 4th, 1998
I’ve been doing some research for this homily. I’ve been visiting bookstores—Borders, Barnes and Noble, Cody’s—looking for angel books. The things you do for ministry! Well, I can report that interest in angels is at least six feet long! And, you know, all but an inch or two is extraordinarily self-centred. If you believed what’s written you’d think that angels were around just for our benefit. There are manuals for talking to them, for recognising them, getting them to do what you want, persuading them to find you a partner. There’re books on angels and astrology, angels and tarot, angels and your inner child, journaling with angels, jogging with angels … OK I made that last one up … but it all seems a terrible betrayal of angels … and of humanity for that matter.
For two reasons. First, those New Age angels are all so nice … and they all sound like Roma Downey. But Jewish and Christian tradition has it that angels come in two varieties. There’s a battle in the heavens and angels are on both sides, good and bad. But even apart from evil ones, angels do not make good company. I for one would not like to meet Saint Michael on a dark night! … If angels are anything they are unsettling and if they are unsettling it’s precisely because they’re not human. And that’s the second reason the current fascination betrays them. In the Christian tradition they’re cosmic creatures. In the creed we name God as maker of both heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen. Well, the unseen, the invisible, those created spirits that our tradition calls angels … they had been around for millenia, for aeons, before human beings turned up on this little planet and they will no doubt persist long after we’ve vanished. And their agenda is not ours. What stars they sail by we can hardly imagine; their desires an enigma.
What we celebrate today is the unseen richness of created reality, far beyond us, above us, beneath us. Our first reading was a vision and our gospel is all about vision too, about seeing, about seeing the unseen. We have an invitation to gaze in wonder at the natural world—physical and spiritual—and discover the fullness of reality. Of all the angel books I looked at, only one seems to grasp this—a book by Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake called “The Physics of Angels.” Well there’s the idea! The physics of angels. The natural power of created reality to speak of God. The power of the cosmos to protect, to communicate, and to heal. But not just to protect human beings, to address us, to heal us, but to do all that, and more, for the cosmos, for the whole.
And that’s important because in our corner of the cosmos the human power to make or unmake the world has grown grand and perilous. Life is at stake: ours, yes, but other lives too. How many species are lost each year? How much topsoil? How much beauty?
Our cosmic identity is in the balance: are we, humans, makers or un-makers? Are we on the side of the angels or against them? Because it’s quite possible that in Raphael’s healing of the planet lies our scourge, that Gabriel’s voice might be raised to announce death not birth. It’s quite possible that the war cry, terrible from Michael’s mouth, might mark us as enemy.
Let it not be so!
October 2nd, 1998